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LEBANON, ISRAEL: Regional fears helping prevent war, says International Crisis Group

August 5, 2010 |  7:28 am

Border-475A new conflict between Lebanon and Israel would likely be much bloodier and more destructive, as well as broader in scope than previous confrontations, suggests a new report on the appraisal of risks along Israel’s northern border by the International Crisis Group.

Regional parties are well aware of the chilling scenario and it's their fear of a potential wider war that is the principal factor -- and also the most worrisome explanation -- to why relative calm has prevailed in the Lebanese-Israeli area since Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah fought a ferocious war in 2006, according to the think tank.

"It is exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous. Threats of an all-out war that would spare neither civilians nor civilian infrastructure, together with the worrisome prospect of its regionalization, are effectively deterring all sides. Today, none of the parties can soberly contemplate the prospect of a conflict that would be uncontrolled, unprecedented and unscripted," said the report, titled "Drums of War: Israel and the 'Axis of Resistance.'  "

It was released a day before Lebanese and Israeli forces clashed along the Lebanon-Israel border, resulting in the deaths of at least two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist, and an Israeli army officer.

Tuesday's clashes instilled fears of renewed violence and marked the worst incident since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

But Beirut-based ICG analyst Sahar Atrache doubts the border clash will trigger a conflict similar to that of 2006. When she spoke to Babylon & Beyond, she reiterated the report's claim that none of the parties -- Israel, Lebanon, or Hezbollah -- wants war because they all fear it would be devastating, emphasizing that Tuesday's violence is easier to hold back than a clash between Israel and Hezbollah. 

"What happened between the Israeli and Lebanese army is a scenario that can be contained more. The international community wouldn't want to see the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] fighting with the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces], and secondly, the Lebanese army doesn't have the capability to go to war with Israel," she said.

Yet Atrache also expressed concern, saying the clashes gave "a sense of escalation" between the two sides. Increasingly, war rhetoric between Hezbollah and Israel is also fueling a tense atmosphere, and on top of that, ICG warns that the political roots that led to the 2006 war remain unresolved.

"The factors for the potential conflict are there," said Atrache.

Should renewed violence break out between Israel and Lebanon, the ICG says the Israeli response would probably be swift and hard and that the Jewish state is likely not to distinguish between Hezbollah and the  Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah now is an integral part.

Israel is also wary of its failure to root out Hezbollah in the last war and will be keen to avoid a repetition of the 2006 scenario. It might look to instead strike neighboring Syria in a new conflict -- a country considered a main supplier of military and logistical support to Hezbollah and more vulnerable to conventional warfare than Hezbollah, whose guerrilla-style warfare tactics the Israeli army has a hard time suppressing.

For its part, Hezbollah has vowed to strike back for any Israeli attacks on civilian targets and has beefed up its weapons arsenal, which is of concern to Israel.

Meanwhile, the so-called “axis of resistance” -- Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah -- has kept busy intensifying its security ties, making the involvement by one in the event of attack against another a possibility and setting the scene for a future conflict that could come to involve several actors in the region.

This doesn't necessarily mean that war is brewing. Other restraint mechanisms, aside from fear, are in place, deterring parties from provoking a new conflict, says the ICG.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, UNIFIL, increased its forces in south Lebanon significantly after the 2006 war, and its presence serves the function of a protective bulwark between Israel and Hezbollah to help maintain the status quo.

Hezbollah’s enhanced political status in Lebanon also serves as an "inhibiting factor," deterring it from provoking initiatives that could jeopardize those gains. Although Israel has expressed serious concern over Hezbollah's military growth, it has "displayed restraint," says the ICG, adding that President Obama is not keen on the prospect of war in his efforts to restore American credibility in the Middle East. 

Atrache describes the current situation in the Lebanese-Israeli area as "precarious," saying it is locked in a state of paralysis. The key to unlocking it -- and the most durable solution, according to the think tank --  is the resuming and concluding of successful peace talks between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon.

Short of such an initiative, the group calls for more international efforts to ameliorate communications among the various parties, diminish tensions and avoid costly mistakes. All parties are also urged to undertake measures to strengthen security.

The world should meanwhile cross its fingers that fear of a devastating conflict will continue to be reason enough for the parties to keep calm and not set one off, concluded the ICG.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Lebanese soldiers look across the border. Credit: Agence France-Presse